One Illuminated Letter of Being
by Donald Platt
Red Mountain Press, 2020

One Illuminated Letter of Being, Donald Platt’s new collection of thirty-two heart-wrenching poems, is oriented around the loss of his mother—itself a disorienting experience, for anyone—that anticipates her death, reconciles itself to it, and resumes living, in a new way.

The collection is also a kind of reckoning with the work of late midlife (the speaker in all the poems, clearly Platt, is sixty-two): locating himself at this new, unfamiliar stretch of the road; dealing with wife Dana’s aging father (whom, like his mother, lives in another state); parenting adult children (one of whom is bipolar). Whereas in one poem (“Happy Day”) he and Dana “are making out, rutting like teenagers in heat / in the front seat,” in another (“Ocean’s Acid Reflux”) she wakes up “gagging on curried / chicken coming back up, harsh acids burning the back of her throat.” No matter how young we feel at a given moment, age catches up to everyone. 

It’s death that throws everything into relief, like a camera flash that blinds and disorients. The collection’s opening poem, “The Past,” concerns itself with a photo. Cleaning out the house of Platt’s uncle, who recently “died at the impossible age / of one hundred and three,” Platt’s cousin sends him the framed picture of Platt as a boy, his brother Michael (who has Down syndrome) as a baby, and their mother, Martha, in her prime. “Her eyelashes are long, / her hair’s cut short. She’s dead,” Platt coolly observes. Michael, we learn, is also dead. So is Platt’s father (the person who took the photo). The glass in the frame, damaged in transit, affects the way Platt sees the picture of “the house at Great Kills where the four of us once lived”: “Sun catches the cracks so it looks as if light, cold spray from / a showerhead, pours over us.” Notice how he imagines the temperature of that water. Cold. Death is sobering.

Martha is alive in “Hospice,” though “dying / while everything is coming into bloom.” For the first time in this collection, her personage is linked to flowers. Staring at his neighbor’s laundry hung in the cold spring breeze while talking on the phone to his mother, Platt notices the clothing “jerk / like convulsive marionettes” and immediately conjures a picture of Martha’s fitful sleep. He’s continually confronted by not only the reality of what’s happening to her, but what he imagines is happening—which is usually worse. “The night is very long. Black tulips open their dark / stars at dawn,” he writes. This image conjures both Platt’s sleepless nights, and nature’s eternal rhythms, no matter how out of step he feels with the dance. It also evokes a feeling of time-lapse photography: watching a flower bud open, wither, and die.

“‘Look,’ she cries, ‘the black tulips, my favorites, / are still here!’” In “The Garden,” Platt pushes Martha’s wheelchair around the grounds of her assisted-living facility. Seeing what’s in bloom energizes her as a person, and more significantly, as an artist. “‘Of course it doesn’t matter now. I haven’t painted / in three years,’” Martha says, seeming to wave this self away.  The subject of “the more than six hundred / watercolor landscapes / she’s painted and sold” is the natural world. This love for, and attention to, natural beauty somehow cleaves Martha to the earth, but she can no longer commune with it in the same way. “My mother lives in her painting,” Platt writes in “Watercolor with Trees in Fog.” This might suggest her spirit lives on in her work, or perhaps that living has to do with engagement: of being fully absorbed by her artistry.

In “Cloud Hands,” Platt observes: “My mother’s sleeping, stick figure a child might draw.” There’s a rudimentary quality to both the image (suggesting Martha’s diminished prowess as an artist), and in the language used to capture it. The chain with which Martha uses to hoist herself upright in her hospital bed reminds Platt of “the mobiles / I once suspended / over our daughters’ cribs for them to smile at, reach for / and bat about.” Here he stands in the liminal space between being a child and a father. Sudden confrontation by the impending loss forces Platt’s eyes to well up with tears. “They burn my eyes. I can no longer see her.” It’s a description of the moment, as well as a kind of foreshadowing.

“My Mother Died” marks the turning point from its title alone. “People ate breakfast at Dunkin’ Donuts,” he observes. The ordinariness stands in sharp contrast to the significance of Platt’s loss. The night of Martha’s death, he wanders the streets and “looked into the lit-up storefronts. / They gave me / solace.” A display of doorknobs keeps him transfixed, imagining “doors only my mother opens,

then shuts quietly behind her without telling anyone

where she has been

or where she is going. She leaves one door ajar.

More sky, ocean,

asphalt. ‘You too must walk through it,’ she says. I push the door wider.

‘But not yet.’”

Life resumes, but Platt’s understanding of his place in it is forever altered. “Smoke Tree” testifies to his understanding of the way we continue to live with the dead, whether it’s seeing his daughter wearing her grandmother’s old coat, Platt reading from “my dead father’s bible,” or eating oatmeal from a bowl, “the same my dead mother-in-law / once ate from.”

Of course, not all of the material possessions of the dead can stay with us. “Goodwill is where we all go. I can’t think of a better place,” Platt writes in “Mood Indigo,” and the name has never conveyed a stronger double-meaning. Not only the often-grubby retail stores where “strangers try on / the lives we wore, buy them at bargain basement prices,” but that friendly, cooperative feeling, which suggests our interdependence on one another. The collection leaves off around the first anniversary of Martha’s death, finding Platt in a French garden surrounded by the people he loves. One Illuminated Letter of Being reminds us that while the passing of those we love is reason to mourn, their presence in our lives is something to remember, and to celebrate.

Michael Quinn